by The People’s Minister of Information JR
My banning from the KPFA airwaves on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, after 18 years of volunteering to produce broadcast journalism informing the listening public about the plight of people in the Black community and other low income communities of color all around the world, was unjustifiable and racist. I was accused of “creating a hostile work environment” by a predominantly white union known as the White Citizens Council that governs the everyday affairs of the Berkeley-based radio station, which has a history of racist hiring practices and other acts of discrimination.
Although it has been hushed, I am the second person of color to be banned in the last two months from the radio station that is plagued with racial animosity. The very popular Pacific Islander broadcaster Weyland Southon, formerly of Hard Knock Radio and Father Figures, preceded me. Whereas white woman broadcaster Sasha Lilley was allowed to get away with playing a tape on KPFA’s Against the Grain the word “fuck” used twice, a word deemed illegal by the Federal Communications Commission, Weyland was told, for the exact same transgression on his show Father Figures, that he would have to sign a contract saying that he received a warning or his show would be taken. Instead of surrendering to apartheid policies, Weyland nobly stepped away from his show.
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an action and resource organization in Oakland advocating just, accountable and diverse media. She has been a listener representative on the KPFA Local Station Board since 2007 and a member of the Pacifica National Board of Directors since 2010. We asked her to comment on the situation from her perch as an insider. Here’s what we talked about.
My banning from the KPFA airwaves on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, after 18 years of volunteering to produce broadcast journalism informing the listening public about the plight of people in the Black community and other low income communities of color all around the world, was unjustifiable and racist.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the KPFA station wide investigation into racism? When did it start and who ordered it?
Tracy Rosenberg: The investigation came about in March of 2013 after the receipt of multiple grievances and complaints from both paid and unpaid staff members. Pacifica Radio carries an officer and director’s liability insurance policy and the policy requires notifications of potential litigation. On receipt of multiple notifications, the insurance company expressed a desire for action on the part of the employer to reduce litigation risks. The investigation into the KPFA working conditions was the action agreed to by Pacifica. Interim Executive Director Summer Reese ordered it.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about the case of Nadra Foster? Who is she? What happened to her on Aug. 20, 2008?
Tracy Rosenberg: Nadra Foster was a volunteer programmer and producer at KPFA. In 1994, she was the youngest person ever accepted into KPFA’s two-year apprenticeship program, which trains women and men from under-represented communities in radio arts and media production. She co-hosted a Friday evening show for several years and contributed to a variety of programs, including Transitions on Traditions.
I am not aware of any issues until 2008, but in the summer of 2008, there was a conflict with KPFA’s office manager about copy machine usage and, instead of resolving the conflict, the general manager apparently wrote an email telling the 14-year producer she was “banned from the station.” To all accounts, Foster continued to contribute to programs and work at the station for several weeks following without incident until Aug. 20, when a staff member confronted her and told her she was to leave the station.
Foster said she would not, and the office manager called the police and told them to forcibly remove Foster, which they did, using extreme force. Several KPFA and Pacifica managers did not intervene and obstructed cameras attempting to record the actions of the police.
Foster was assaulted and restrained and her right arm was damaged. I attended the arraignment after she had been held at Santa Rita for several days, and her arm was in a sling and there were noticeable bruises on other parts of her body.
Several members of the KPFA paid and unpaid staff donated bail money out of their pockets, and after the arraignment, several of us went to a bail bondsman and gave the bail certificate to her brother so he could get her out of jail. No charges were ever filed against Foster.
Over one third of KPFA’s staff signed an open letter objecting to the actions of Aug. 20, 2008. KPFA’s local station board refused to address the matter, a motion to do so defeated by the Save-KPFA-affiliated board members.
M.O.I. JR: Would you compare me being banned in the manner that I was with the KPFA initiated beating of Nadra Foster, considering that this is how young Black volunteer broadcasters are treated at KPFA?
Tracy Rosenberg: What is similar in the two situations is nonviolent disagreements between individuals were escalated rather than resolved. Police power or the threat of police power was brought into the station to enforce one side of a disagreement. The police were invoked to support the side with more institutional power.
M.O.I. JR: What were the findings of the investigation? Who was punished besides me, a volunteer with no hiring or firing or programming power?
Tracy Rosenberg: The investigation report has only been released to me in summary form. The findings of the report were significant problems at KPFA with handling grievances and complaints in a fair and consistent manner.
The summary report stated three complaints were mishandled by Andrew Phillips as the interim general manager and three remedies are moving forward: one consisting of an apology, another affects an employment situation, and the third resulted in the termination of you, JR Valrey, as an unpaid staffer. The interim general manager was put on leave for the duration of the investigation and eventually transferred out of the KPFA general manager position.
The findings of the report were significant problems at KPFA with handling grievances and complaints in a fair and consistent manner.
M.O.I. JR: Do you think that KPFA has a two-tier system to deal with grievances, programming and hiring? If so, how does a “progressive” station like KPFA justify dealing with some people as full human beings while dealing with others as three-fifths of a person?
Tracy Rosenberg: Yes, I think KPFA has a two-tier system to deal with grievances, programming and hiring. There is a formal two-tier system that is enforced by the Communications Workers of America, whose paid-staff-only bargaining unit replaced a paid-and-unpaid-staff United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) bargaining unit in 1994. And there is an informal two-tier system that gives a great deal of institutional power to some long-time senior staff in internal operations that is far in excess of the job description for the positions they hold.
The justifications usually offered for some of the imbalances include the greater amount of time paid employees spend at the station and the applicability of existing labor laws to paid employees that don’t cover unpaid employees. Any organization where two thirds of the products are produced by unpaid employees should have an established network of support for a resource it is so dependent on, but that hasn’t happened at KPFA. I think many unpaid workers have suffered poor treatment over the years as a result.
M.O.I. JR: Aileen Alfandary and Brian Edwards Tiekert have criticized management on the air. Why were they not banned as I was – or even cited for creating a “hostile work environment”?
Tracy Rosenberg: That is a good question and not one I have the answer to. The best answer I can come up with is that management – and board members – were unprotected by unions. The individual whose hostile work environment claim was upheld against JR was protected by a union and thus able to enforce the perception of hostility without going to court.
Managers, board members, and unpaid staffers have no clear remedy besides lawsuits, which are very expensive. If you care about the organization you work for or with and it’s a struggling nonprofit, a lawsuit is not always what you can or want to do. There should be a clear and workable process for any member of the working community at the station to air concerns and achieve a remedy. I am not an advocate of “banning” for anything but an act of physical violence.
M.O.I. JR: Do you think that the recent investigation and the implemented results will quell the issues of racism at the station?
Tracy Rosenberg: I think it was good that 40-plus people spoke to a neutral party and documented some of their concerns. Some dialogue is better than no dialogue. I have not read the final report. It remains to be seen what implementation of the results will come. But I have been hearing discussion about race problems and racism at KPFA for a long time and by many people.
It’s clear to me the problems and perceptions run deep and will not be quelled rapidly. I’d like to see a more open attitude towards discussion, a clear institutional admission of wrongdoing in the Nadra Foster incident, and a commitment to banning as a last resort, not a first one.
M.O.I. JR: In your opinion, do you think I got due process and do you think that the process was transparent, considering that the first draft of the report was written before people who had witnessed certain incidents in question were interviewed, as well as a number of Black broadcasters were never interviewed who wanted to participate?
Tracy Rosenberg: Since this was the first time I can remember anything was ever investigated by an outside party, I will say you, JR, received more due process than Nadra Foster did. But in a way, since this situation was partially an outcome of talking about Nadra Foster on-air, the two injustices are linked.
I have said publicly and I will say it again here, that while I was not privy to everything that went on between individuals and I do not believe anyone should be forced to work in a hostile environment, I believe a suspension should have been completed and Block Report Radio returned to the air afterwards. If a disciplinary process is described as 1) warning 2) suspension 3) termination, then that is the process that should be followed. Each and every time. No matter who it is.
I agree with the statement that the investigator should have made the time to speak to every individual who witnessed any of the incidents in question and any broadcaster who wished to participate.
M.O.I. JR: Why do KPFA and the CWA union engage in the unusual practice of union stewards acting as managerial department heads and vice versa? Isn’t there some kind of conflict of interest here?
Tracy Rosenberg: The practice seems contrary to the common understanding of Section 2.11 of the National Labor Relations Code, which reads as follows:
“2.11 The term ‘supervisor’ means any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.”
I would read that to mean managerial department heads who supervise the work of others, assign them tasks and/or evaluate performance would not be eligible to serve as union stewards or to be included in the bargaining unit. But others read the code differently.
M.O.I. JR: The Black broadcasters at KPFA have been trying to meet with management for months. Is there any intention for the management to engage in an un-orchestrated discussion on racism?
Tracy Rosenberg: I wasn’t aware of this. I am a member of the board, not of management, but in general it seems to me a request for a meeting “for months” should be granted and it should not take months.
M.O.I. JR: Why is sharing information with the KPFA listeners who fund the listener-supported station considered under KPFA and Pacifica policy a transgression? How can you be transparent and secretive at the same time?
Tracy Rosenberg: This question would be easier to answer with a specific example. I think sometimes listeners and staff sometimes don’t know who to ask about what and there are probably some things to do to make communication less generally confusing. But if you’re asking why anything stays “confidential” at all, there are requirements to protect people’s privacy in some respects. Speaking for myself, I try not to be secretive and spend a lot of time talking about what I do as a board member and why I do it.
M.O.I. JR: Why don’t volunteers have any rights at “progressive” KPFA, and why does Pacifica continue to hire people who feel like former general manager Andrew Phillips that volunteers need to “shut up and do their job” and be happy that they can volunteer at a radio station?
Tracy Rosenberg: The existing system is beneficial for those who benefit from it; and the greater society, including the federal labor code and labor union leadership, certainly upholds the value that employees are in a protected class vis a vis those who donate their services for free. The internal narrative is supported by power structures in the outside world.
But it is true progressive organizations should try to use more innovative internal structures than the owner vs. worker model imposed by capitalism. Any organization where two thirds and more of the “products” are created by volunteers should honor and hold sacred work that is unpaid. Especially since that work creates a lot of the revenue that pays the salaries.
I do not think anyone should be told to “shut up and do their job.” Those who can get paid to work in public radio are lucky and are the ones who should be visibly encouraged to express gratitude, not those who work for nothing.
Any organization where two thirds and more of the “products” are created by volunteers should honor and hold sacred work that is unpaid. Especially since that work creates a lot of the revenue that pays the salaries.
M.O.I. JR: Considering what recently happened to Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, what do you think about Summer’s memo banning me, especially the part about putting the Berkeley police on high alert?
Tracy Rosenberg: I think, as most of my colleagues on the local station board did as well, that it was over the top and disproportionate. Given the larger societal issue of African-American men and police brutality, I think it was dangerous and threatening to JR.
I believe it was middle-class insurance company values and also some pressure from the CWA bargaining unit for a strong response that caused the letter to be written as it was. I regret it was written and I am glad the local station board asked for it to be retracted.
M.O.I. JR: What do you think KPFA and Pacifica need to do to resolve this?
Tracy Rosenberg: I think KPFA and Pacifica feel it is resolved and are unlikely to take any further action without pressure from the community. What I would like to see is discussion about how a community organization serves local communities, what accountability to those communities looks like, and how we can learn to hold donated labor with respect and equal standing with employment, because those are the values I think we should reflect.
The ways that economic privilege, racism, sexism and capitalism make that not happen or happen less than it should need to be looked at. I don’t think a progressive organization should be afraid of such a conversation.
I say that as a believer in structure and personnel policies and organizational charts. They are not mutually exclusive. You can be both well-organized and genuinely progressive. KPFA currently needs to improve on both fronts.
I would also like to see Block Radio Report returned to Wednesday mornings, as I think it was a good program and served the community.
M.O.I. JR: What is going on with WPFW and WBAI?
Tracy Rosenberg: WBAI has a fixed costs problem with no stable home at the moment – the rental space on Wall Street was too expensive, and then it got flooded out by Hurricane Sandy and WBAI has been borderline homeless since – and a transmitter lease at the Empire State Building that is ruinously expensive. Keeping WBAI going has stressed Pacifica out for a decade and it’s getting to the end of the road for grabbing money here and there and using it to prop up WBAI. So we are looking seriously at all the options, although no one – except maybe Dan Siegel – wants to sell the license back to the commercial media.
At WPFW, a general manager who is African-American but came from NPR culture made a lot of programming changes at the historically jazz-based station, and people got really upset. I think the station probably does need some programming changes, but 50 percent of the schedule at once doesn’t usually go over very well at Pacifica stations.
I would also like to see Block Radio Report returned to Wednesday mornings, as I think it was a good program and served the community.
To reach Executive Director Summer Reece of the Pacifica Foundation, who made the decision to ban JR Valrey, you can contact her directly at (510) 333-1965. Please let her know that you refuse to support a racist KPFA and Pacifica.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.